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March 8, 2004 -- Practicing the traditional Chinese martial art of tai chi appears to offer both mental and physical benefits for people with chronic diseases, but researchers aren't exactly sure what those benefits are.

A new review of studies on tai chi shows that the practice is safe and probably beneficial for older adults with conditions such as heart failure, high blood pressure, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. It may also offer psychological benefits in reducing stress and anxiety in healthy people.

But researchers say the lack of rigorous scientific studies on the subject makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the long-term risks or health benefits of practicing tai chi.

Tai chi combines deep breathing and relaxation with postures that move smoothly from one to the other in slow, gentle movements.

Researchers say it has been promoted for good health, memory concentration, digestion, balance and flexibility. It is also thought to improve mental problems such as anxiety, depression, and age-related declines in mental function.

"However, despite its popularity, the biological mechanism and clinical effects of tai chi are not well understood, write researcher Chenchen Wang, MD, MSc, of Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston, and colleagues.

Health Benefits of Tai Chi Unclear

For the study, published in the March 8 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers analyzed 47 English- and Chinese-language studies on the effects of tai chi in people with chronic health problems.

These studies reported health benefits including improvements in balance and strength, cardiovascular and respiratory function, flexibility, immune function, and symptoms of arthritis. Psychological benefits in reducing stress and anxiety were also reported.

But only nine of the studies reviewed were randomized and controlled, which is the highest standard for scientific research, and all of them were short-term.

"Therefore, the long-term effects of tai chi practice are still unknown, and there is insufficient information to recommend Tai Chi to patients with chronic conditions," conclude the researchers.

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